Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) was a German historian whose Der Untergang des Abendlandes, (translated as Decline of the West) (1918–22) was a very influential study of the cyclical nature of western civilization that strengthened the pessimism of the 1920s. It opened the new field of comparative world history and influenced many conservative writers.
Spengler was born at Blankenburg in the Harz Mountains and studied philosophy, history, mathematics, and art, taking his PhD at Halle in 1904. He taught mathematics at a gymnasium in Munich until 1911, when an inheritance allowed him to concentrate on his scholarship. Decline of the West made him an instant intellectual celebrity throughout the world in the 1920s. His other books were much less influential, and included Der Mensch und die Technik (1931; Man and Technics, 1932) and Jahre der Entscheidung (1933; Hour of Decision, 1934). Spengler spoke to the political and spiritual predicament of Germany after World War I, explaining Germany was no longer "the people of poets and thinkers" but could become a useful land of engineers, industrialists, and technicians. In the Weimar era he took a highly conservative position and criticized parliamentary and constitutional rule, as well as individual rights, as un-German. Spengler found the Nazis' racism stupid, their economic policies shortsighted, and their "socialism" far removed from the old-fashioned Prussian state-capitalism Spengler intended by that name. His refusal to support Nazism led to his ostracism when the Nazis came to power in 1933.
His book was a smashing success among intellectuals worldwide as it predicted the disintegration of European and American civilization after a violent "age of Caesarism," arguing by detailed analogies with other civilizations. It deepened the post-World War I pessimism in Europe. German philosopher Ernst Cassirer explained that at the end of the First World War, Spengler's very title was enough to inflame imaginations: "At this time many, if not most of us, had realized that something was rotten in the state of our highly prized Western civilization. Spengler's book expressed in a sharp and trenchant way this general uneasiness." Northrop Frye argued that while every element of Spengler's thesis has been refuted a dozen times, yet it is "one of the world's great Romantic poems" and its leading ideas are "as much part of our mental outlook today as the electron or the dinosaur, and in that sense we are all Spenglerians."
Spengler's pessistic predictions about the inevitable decline of the West inspired Third World intellectuals, ranging from China and Korea to Chile, eager to identify the fall of western imperialism. In Britain and America, however, Spengler's pessimism was later countered by the optimism of Arnold J. Toynbee in London, who wrote world history in the 1940s with a greater stress on religion.
Decline of the West predicted the disintegration of European and American civilization after a violent "age of Caesarism," arguing by detailed analogies with other civilizations and interpreting history as the life of nine organic cultures: Egyptian (3400 BC-1200 BC), Indian (1500 BC-1100 BC), Chinese (1300 BC-AD 200), Classical (1100 BC-400 BC), Byzantine (AD 300-1100), Aztec (AD 1300-1500), Arabian (AD 300-1250), Mayan (AD 600-960), and Western (AD 900-1900). Jumping across centuries and societies, Spengler adduced a remarkable variety of examples to support two key arguments. First culture is a fundamentally spiritual or ideal phenomenon; studying its history allows us to grasp its temporal character, its principle of becoming—of the world-as-history. It is this ideational or spiritual quality that authoritatively distinguished it from other Cultures. Using his strong background in art history and mathematics, Spengler sought to understand the unique "soul" or pattern of experience and creation of each civilization by comparing its forms of art, thought, and action. Thus the Western or "Faustian" soul is characterized by a yearning for infinity, which is equally expressed in the Gothic cathedral, the infinitesimal calculus, the music of Bach, worldwide imperialistic diplomacy, the radio, and modern techniques of credit banking.
Second, all cultures follow the same sequence of growth and decay in similar lengths of time. They pass through the stages of pre-culture, culture, and civilization, and are marked by identical crises. Alexander the Great, for example, plays the same role in Classical culture as Napoleon in Western culture; Pythagoras resembles Martin Luther; Aristotle parallels Immanuel Kant; Stoicism in Rome is like Socialism in Germany. Given that every culture passes a life cycle from youth through maturity and old age to death, it follows that Western civilization has now entered the final period of inevitable decline. More precisely, he identified the two stages of culture and civilization, and equated the second stage with degeneration. Spengler views the first decline of the West as applying to all cultural achievements and occurring with the transition from the first to the second stage during the 19th century, amid the prevalence of materialist and democratic values, and anticipates a second future decline with the victory of a growing mass of "coloreds" over a declining minority of "whites," or "Prussians," who as the potential elite of Western civilization at the political level would defend and preserve the remnants of its culture, although no change is envisaged in other cultural spheres.
His many striking aphorisms include:
- A civilization (Kultur) is born at the moment when, out of the primitive psychic conditions of a perpetually infantile [raw] humanity, a mighty soul awakes and extricates itself: a form out of the formless, a bounded and transitory existence out of the boundless and persistent. This soul comes to flower on the soil of a country with precise boundaries, to which it remains attached like a plant. Conversely a civilization dies if once this soul has realized the complete sum of its possibilities in the shape of peoples, languages, creeds, arts, states, and sciences, and thereupon goes back into the primitive psyche from which it originally emerged.
- We are civilized people, not Gothic or Rococo people; we must reckon with the hard cold facts of life in a late era, to which the parallel is not Pericles' Athens but Caesar's Rome. Of great painting or great music there can no longer be, for Western people, any question. Their architectural possibilities have been exhausted these hundred years. Only extensive possibilities are left to them. Yet, for a sound and vigorous generation that is filled with unlimited hopes, I fail to see that it is any disadvantage to discover in time that some of those hopes must come to nothing. And if the hopes thus doomed should be those most dear, well, a man who is worth anything will get over that. It is true that the issue may be a tragic one for some individuals who in their decisive years are smitten by the discovery that in the spheres of architecture, drama, painting, there is nothing left for them to achieve. What matter if they do go under!... If under the influence of this book men of the coming generation devote themselves to technics instead of lyrics, to the navy instead of painting, to politics instead of philosophy, they will be doing what I wish, and you could not wish anything better for them.
- In place of a world, there is a city, a point, in which the whole life of broad regions is collecting while the rest dries up. In place of a type-true people, born of and grown on the soil, there is a new sort of nomad, cohering unstably in fluid masses, the parasitical city dweller, traditionless, utterly matter-of-fact, religionless, clever, unfruitful, deeply contemptuous of the countryman and especially that highest form of countryman, the country gentleman.
- It is the Late city that first defies the land, contradicts Nature in the lines of its silhouette, denies all Nature. It wants to be something different from and higher than Nature. These high-pitched gables, these Baroque cupolas, spires, and pinnacles, neither are, nor desire to be, related with anything in Nature. And then begins the gigantic megalopolis, the city-as-world, which suffers nothing beside itself and sets about annihilating the country picture.
- Long ago the country bore the country-town and nourished it with her best blood. Now the giant city sucks the country dry, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men, till it wearies and dies in the midst of an almost uninhabited waste of country.
- Bentley, Jerry H. Shapes of World History in Twentieth Century Scholarship. Essays on Global and Comparative History Series. (1996)
- Costello, Paul. World Historians and Their Goals: Twentieth-Century Answers to Modernism (1993).
- Frye, Northrop. "Spengler Revisited" in Northrop Frye on modern culture (2003), pp 297-382, first published 1974; online
- Hughes, H. Stuart. Oswald Spengler (1952).
- McInnes, Neil. "The Great Doomsayer: Oswald Spengler Reconsidered." National Interest 1997 (48): 65-76. Issn: 0884-9382 Fulltext: Ebsco
- Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West (1918-22) vol 1 online; vol 2 online; excerpt and text search, abridged edition
- Spengler, Oswald. Letters, 1913-1936 (1966) 320pp, edited by Arthur Helps
- Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man (1927)
- Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State (1946) online at p. 289
- Northrop Frye, "Spengler Revisited" in Northrop Frye on modern culture (2003) online at p. 305
- Prasenjit Duara, "The Discourse of Civilization and Pan-Asianism." Journal of World History 2001 12(1): 99-130. Issn: 1045-6007 Fulltext: Project Muse; Neil McInnes, "The Great Doomsayer: Oswald Spengler Reconsidered." National Interest 1997 (48): 65-76. Fulltext: Ebsco
- Decline of the West 1:153
- Decline of the West 1:40 online
- The Decline of the West, vol. 1:32 online
- The Decline of the West, vol. 2, ch. 4, sect. 3
- The Decline of the West, vol. 2, ch. 4, sct. 5